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The Jury’s Out: Will Unified Rutgers Law School Help or Hurt Legal Education in NJ?

One school, two deans, two campuses separated by nearly 100 miles have skeptics wondering if ‘Rutgers Law’ will simply be too much to manage

rutgers law school newark

When Rutgers University’s board of governors last week approved a long-anticipated merger between the two autonomous law schools that bear the its name, administrators promised expanded course offerings, better alumni networking opportunities, and a noticeable boost to national rankings. But skeptics debate the logistics of managing campuses 90 miles apart in Newark and Camden and warn that Newark’s modest reputation may not be enough to rescue Camden’s sinking one.

The plan aims to bolster Rutgers against what many describe as a nationwide crisis in legal education, best evidenced in precipitously declining enrollments. Rutgers is just one of many schools across the country contemplating drastic changes. But as it merges its schools, at least two Pennsylvania universities are moving in the opposite direction -- dividing a single school into two.

Further, Rutgers Law-Camden still faces fallout from its proposed yet ultimately defeated merger with Rowan University three years ago. Applications dropped dramatically after the unsuccessful plan became public because Rowan is considered academically inferior to Rutgers. Rumors now abound over Rutgers-Camden’s fiscal future. To make matters worse, in March, U.S. News and World Report downgraded Rutgers-Camden’s law school ranking to 102, marking the first time in history that the school has fallen out of the top 100.

All these questions lead observers to ask: can the merger safeguard public legal education in New Jersey?

How it will work

Assuming the American Bar Association (ABA) approves the merger in August, the newly minted “Rutgers Law School” will begin issuing a single application this fall for 2016 applicants. This should keep the schools from competing against each other for talent. Incoming students will be able to indicate a geographic preference that admissions counselors will ultimately decide whether or not to honor. Two deans -- one in the north and one in the south -- will co-lead the unified institution. Each will continue to report to the chancellor of his or her respective campus.

For now, Newark acting dean Ronald Chen and Camden acting dean John Oberdiek will take on the title of co-dean, though Oberdiek will return to teaching when his current contract expires in one year and Chen says in two years he “might be ready for who knows.” In attempting to turn over a turnkey institution to their eventual successors, the two men say they’ll spend the foreseeable future working primarily to integrate their curricula and their complex library systems.

The merger should allow the deans to allocate resources to each campus’s areas of academic strength and offer niche courses to upperclassmen while allowing all students to participate in remote classes taught through a state-of-the-art immersive classroom.

“They have faculty with certain strengths in intellectual property and we have some with specialties in criminal law and corporate law,” said Chen to describe the relative strong suits of each campus. “We tend to focus on big case-impact litigation that addresses systemic societal changes like affordable housing and constitutional law and they tend toward client service.”

Professors won’t need to take on any additional teaching load to accommodate the changes, adds Chen, who doesn’t expect the merger to cost much beyond what was needed to build the just-opened immersive classroom in Newark. The one in Camden was paid for with a state grant.

What’s more, he and Oberdiek believe they may realize some cost savings in eliminating duplication of services and fees like library subscriptions.

“We have never sat down and tabulated anything,” said Oberdiek of the costs. “This isn’t a merger that’s expensive nor is it being done to save money.”

What’s behind It

Four years in the making, the merger got derailed as the university underwent a major restructuring in the intervening years. Overwhelmingly approved by faculty at both law schools, the university’s faculty senate, and now the board of governors, supporters say the move should draw applicants from a bigger out-of-state pool. Despite having no law school in New Brunswick, Rutgers administrators say the Newark and Camden schools fight the perception of being inferior branch campuses of the real thing.

“It clarifies that this is the Rutgers law school and not a branch of a school that doesn’t exist,” said Oberdiek.

The schools have operated jointly before. Rutgers took over two existing law schools in the 1940s and ran them from Newark from 1950 until 1967, when the Camden program became too much to manage from afar and the school broke into two. Now, in light of nationally declining enrollment and funding, the decision has been made to reunite them.

The opposite direction

The task of managing a split law school is no small endeavor. As evidence, these two schools are going in the opposite direction in the face of declining law school enrollments. Chester-based Widener University ran law school campuses in Harrisburg and Wilmington, DE, for decades until breaking them apart and renaming them this year. When Penn State acquired Dickinson University’s law school in 2000, it simply tacked it on to its existing school in State College. Starting this year, the two operate with unique accreditations, admissions, curricula and administration.

Interim Widener law school dean Erin Daly says as the second campus, in Harrisburg, grew to a certain size, it developed a distinct curriculum, ethos, and community that simply didn’t match the one in Wilmington.

“Over the last 25 years the branch started to grow further and further from main one … so to have one identity as Widener University School of Law made it difficult for each campus to build on its strengths. It got to the point where it made more sense for the two campuses to be administered independently,” she said.

But legal education blogger and Drexel University Senior Associate Dean Daniel Filler says, “Having a centralized model with two campuses is difficult. You’re attempting to have two different cultures operate under one administrative umbrella, and there’re challenges to maintaining two campuses,” he said.

Co-leading the campuses

“On all matters that affect the school as a whole we’ll make the decisions together,” said Oberdiek of his joint leadership with Chen. “If they’re local we’ll make local decisions. It’s not likely you would ever hire someone for this position who isn’t collaborative.”

By most accounts, the structure is unusual. Though a “dotted line,” as Oberdiek calls it, exists between the law deans and Rutgers’ senior vice president for academic affairs, the deans report directly to their respective chancellors and don’t have any one person to whom they’re directly both accountable.

“Should we disagree on matters the four of (us) can work that out,” Oberdiek said.

But Filler has his doubts.

“Who’s the unifying person making sure everyone sings from the same hymnal?” he observed.

For instance, how does the admissions committee fairly distribute the top candidates or those with greater financial need? Wouldn’t each dean and chancellor favor determinations that prove fruitful for their own fiefdoms?

He adds, “Who makes the decision about class size? Is fundraising being done by campus or will it be allocated based on which dean raises it? If schools have different policies on tenuring clinicians, will each campus maintain its own separate policy?” Filler asked.

The Camden problem

Filler does allow that a joint Rutgers law school might have the luxury of being more selective with its applicants, thus raising the average entering GPA and reducing scholarships. But he asks the question everyone’s wondering: “Can one weaker campus be brought up by a stronger one?”

Until a few years ago, Newark and Camden were considered pretty comparable overall. But applications to Camden immediately fell off by 25 percent with the news that Rutgers-Camden might be forcibly melded with the academically inferior Rowan. Though it’s rebounding, Rutgers-Camden lost nearly half of its applicants since 2010. Nationally the total decline is comparable, though it happened much more gradually.

The announcement happened at exactly the wrong time,” said Camden’s Vice Dean Adam Scales. “Just as law school enrollments across the country started declining, would-be applicants to Rutgers-Camden worried they wouldn’t graduate with a Rutgers Law degree.”

In the past five years, first-year enrollment has sunk from 269 to 182, and this year’s graduating class entered with 116, versus 282 for the preceding class. As a result, administrators asked 10 to 12 adjunct professors to take a year off, and students have complained about a dearth of courses and classes.

Last year, all 140 first-year students crammed into one criminal law class because only one out of four approved professors was available to teach it. Considering law school professors grade on a curve, students rightfully worried that underperforming in the oversized class would significantly harm their GPAs.

In the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings, Newark sunk four places to 87 while Camden plummeted 21 spots into the third tier and its lowest level ever.

“It's a popular view in the school that we're running short on funds,” emailed a third-year Camden law student who wished not to be identified. “Frankly, I think (the merger) is a move to up the rankings for Camden. I'm not sure if it will pan out, as in, couple of spots up in the rankings will not make or break us. Hopefully though, the merger will strengthen the school as a whole.”

Both schools staying put

One rumor that has been dispelled, however, is the one whose storyline had Rutgers’ central administration plotting the merger as a way to shut down the Camden campus and/or fold the law school into a future New Brunswick-based legal program. In an article published on NJ Spotlight two years ago, Filler himself propagated that view. He now says that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

“I’ve read skeptical comments but they’ve set up a model with dual deans and they haven’t moved anything away from the original campuses. They also now have more powerful campus heads,” he said, referencing a more autonomous system of campus governance fully implemented in 2014.

“That’s a non-starter and it’s no more true than any conspiracy theory,” responded Oberdiek when asked about the issue.

He added that each school has spent millions of dollars on capital improvements this decade and that the law schools form a critical part of the new strategic plans adopted in Newark and Camden.

The ABA vote

Neither Chen nor Oberdiek would speculate about the outcome of an ABA vote this summer, though they both said a visitation committee seemed pleased with what they saw when they toured the schools a few months ago.

It’s likely the association will look favorably on the ability of students to access to double the number of alumni and the fact that they can more easily avail themselves of internships and jobs in both New York and Philadelphia.

Said both Chen and Oberdiek in separate phone calls: “The whole is going to be greater than the sum of its parts.”

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